Idunn and Laufey: immortality vs. doom

I realize that Loki’s mother Laufey and the goddess Iðunn are not obviously connected, but there are parallels between them. These reveal the power and gender politics of Norse myth. In some ways Laufey is an inversion of Iðunn.

It is uncertain what exactly Laufey is, giantess or goddess. You can make an argument either way. In Sörla þáttr the author refers to Loki’s parents as karl and kerling (“old man” and “old woman”), which John Lindow says suggests they were both giants.1

He also points out that some derive Laufey from Louhi, a witch in the Kalevala, who lives a wild space called Pohjola, equivalent to Jötunheimar, in the sense of them both being outlands.2 The fact that Loki calls himself Laufeyjarson rather than Fárbautason is a bit odd if we assume both his parents were giants, although it could be that Fárbauti was either a runaway dad or otherwise a poor father.

Farbauti Marvel-style.
Farbauti Marvel-style.

The more exciting hypothesis is that Laufey is a goddess. The main evidence for this is her name, which may mean “Leafy Island”; which does not sound like a giantess. (They tend to go for names suggesting cold, mountains or other inhospitable terrain.)

Whether she was kidnapped by Farbauti or went with him voluntarily, she becomes comparable to Iðunn, except that Iðunn, from the gods’ point of view, was rescued just in time. Laufey, on the other hand, managed to overcome her revulsion and actually bear a son for him. This revulsion is well-attested, as in Þrymskviða when Thor proposes to Freyja that she marry a giant so he can get his hammer back:

“Wroth grew Freyja  foamed with rage;
The shining halls      shook with her wrath,
the Brisings’ necklace          burst asunder:
“Most mad after men          thou mayest call me,
If I wend with thee to the world of the etins.”
(Hollander’s translation)

On the other hand, the goddess Gefjon gets herself pregnant by a giant, and bears four sons to take advantage of a promise of as much land as she can plow in a day and a night. (In her case, this instrumental use of sex with a giant for a devious purpose is very Odinic.)

Iðunn is respectably married to an Ass, Bragi, while Laufey is shamefully married to a giant, with the rather scary name Fárbauti (“the dangerous hitter”3). Respectability has its price; Iðunn and Bragi have no children. Laufey, on the other hand, has Loki.

Of the goddesses that the giants try to kidnap or otherwise take from the gods, two, Freyja and Iðunn, have power that will continue the family line, while Sif is about the power of family connections (her name means something like “affinity”.) What power did Laufey have, I wonder? I also can’t help but wonder if it turned out better than the god Njörð’s marriage to the giatness Skaði.

Of course, I’m assuming that Laufey was married. It may be that Fárbauti carried her off, since that seems to be the preferred method for giant wooing. If so, the parallels with Iðunn become even stronger. We don’t know, even, if Laufey enjoyed being with a giant. I’ve always assumed that Þiazi raped Iðunn – it would be strange if a giant didn’t exercise the same sexual license with a goddess that, say, Odin did with giantesses.

Þiazi also had the apples, which leads me to a final contrast between the two goddesses. Iðunn has the apples of immortality – she prolongs the gods’ lives. Laufey, however, gave them Loki, who will eventually bring about their doom.

Sørensen has a theory about parentage in Icelandic literature based on the idea of an in-group and out-group. He thinks that heroes whose fathers come from the in-group and mothers from the out-group are well-regarded, while those whose parents are the other way round are suspect.

He uses the example of the poet Egill Skallagrímsson, and compares him with Loki, who is also regarded ambivalently, right up until he finally turns.(Remember that when Iðunn goes missing, the gods don’t waste time wondering what happened, they go straight to Loki.)

This might seem slightly unfair, considering how many of the gods are half- or three-quarters giant themselves, but they are “right way round”, while Loki is not. In fact, Rasmus Tranum Kristensen argues that the reason the gods are so violent towards the giants is to enforce a separation between them that is entirely artificial, since they are such close kin.4 With Loki, every time the Aesir look at him they see the thing they didn’t want to happen.

The story of Iðunn is a story of averting that disaster, and makes me wish we knew more about Laufey.

1. Lindow 1997: 53.
2. Lindow 1997: 53.
3. Simek 1996: 78.
4. Kristensen 2007: 165.


References:

The Poetic Edda, 1962/1990: Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), Uinversity of Texas, Austin. (2nd edition, revised)

Kristensen, Rasmus Tranem, 2007: “Why was Ođinn Killed By Fenrir? A Structural Analysis of Kinship Structures in Old Norse Myths of Creation and Eschatology”, in Hermann, Schjødt, and Kristensen: 149-69.
Lindow, John, 1997, Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology, FF Communications 262, Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia/Academia Scientiaram Fennica.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

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